The Number Ones

September 10, 2011

The Number Ones: Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” (Feat. Christina Aguilera)

Stayed at #1:

4 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

“Rock star.” That’s what Blake Shelton would call Adam Levine. On the NBC singing show The Voice, Shelton and Levine would constantly bicker in the most theatrically playful way. They competed, supposedly, to get the best singers on their teams and then to push those singers to victories, but nobody ever particularly cared who won The Voice. People tuned in more for the coaches than the contestants, and the gym-buddy rivalry between Shelton and Levine was usually the main dynamic at work, with various other big stars struggling to get their own shots in. “Rock star” was Shelton’s way of praising Levine even as he belittled him.

Blake Shelton was wrong. Adam Levine has never been a rock star, even if he’s (sort of) played one on TV. Even in their earliest days, when they mostly functioned as a band, Levine’s group Maroon 5 didn’t really do anything that could’ve been mistaken for rocking. By 2007, when Maroon 5’s “Makes Me Wonder” became their first #1 hit, the group had mostly tapped into a post-Timberlake strain of sleekly chirpy white funk. Since then, Maroon 5 has essentially become Adam Levine’s solo project, as he’s worked with industry-approved song-doctor types to make forgettable pop smashes. Honestly, Blake Shelton is probably more of a rock star than that guy. (Blake Shelton’s highest-charting single, the 2013 Pistol Annies collab “Boys ‘Round Here,” peaked at #12.)

If anything, Adam Levine has been outright dismissive of the idea of contemporary rock stardom. In 2018, he kicked up a bit of a backlash when he told Variety that his band had always been more drawn to rap and R&B: “Rock music is nowhere, really. I don’t know where it is. If it’s around, no one’s invited me to the party.” In 2021, Levine told Zane Lowe, “When the first Maroon 5 album came out there were still other bands. I feel like there aren’t any bands anymore, you know? That’s the thing that makes me kind of sad, is that there were just bands. There’s no bands anymore, and I feel like they’re a dying breed.”

There are still bands, obviously. Duh. But there aren’t really any bands who consistently dominate the Hot 100 the way Maroon 5 did for years. Maroon 5 only pulled that trick off by making the fateful and lucrative decision to stop working as a band. The other Maroon 5 members are basically just the guys who stand behind Adam Levine when he’s doing solo-career stuff. Maroon 5 made this transition, ironically enough, with a song that’s basically about a rock star. It’s not a song about a band, which is notable. If Adam Levine tried to sing that Maroon 5 had moves like the Rolling Stones, it would’ve been torches and pitchforks for those guys. Apparently, though, Levine could claim to have moves like Jagger, and nobody got too mad about it. Not even Mick Jagger.

Just before he found his semi-permanent place on the coaching panel at The Voice, Adam Levine and his buddies took their last stab at anything that was even remotely comparable to rock stardom. After they finished touring their 2007 sophomore album It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, Maroon 5 locked in with Mutt Lange, the arena-rock mastermind behind blockbusters from AC/DC and Def Leppard. Lange, who’s appeared in this column a bunch of times, had divorced his former collaborator Shania Twain a few years earlier, and he was living in semi-retirement in his Swiss castle. In the years he called up Maroon 5 to offer his services, Mutt Lange had only accepted one production job, working on former Number Ones artists Nickelback’s 2008 album Dark Horse.

Hands All Over, the 2010 album that Maroon 5 recorded with Mutt Lange, is processed and generic and utterly lacking in personality, but it still sounds, more or less, like a band at work. Nobody wanted to hear that shit. At least at first, Hands All Over was a resounding flop. The album debuted at #2, and it sold a fraction of what It Won’t Be Soon Before Long moved. First single “Misery” peaked at #14, and none of the later singles came anywhere near the top 20. The album took two years to go platinum. That’s a brick.

If Hands All Over had actually taken off, maybe Adam Levine wouldn’t have been so quick to accept NBC’s offer for The Voice. NBC positioned The Voice as a competitor, and maybe an antidote, to American Idol, which had faded from its peak popularity but which was still a ratings force. The Voice didn’t have a mean judge. The show’s four pop stars — Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, Christina Aguilera, and Cee-Lo Green in that first season — weren’t there to say anything rude about the various contestants. Instead, they were coaches, and they were there to help everyone do better. In a very real way, the show was less about the contestants, more about the coaches.

We can see that in the pop-chart impact of The Voice. American Idol had a spotty track record, but at least a couple of its winners went on to become real-deal no-shit pop stars. (In a funny twist, Kelly Clarkson, the first American Idol winner, later became a coach on The Voice.) None of the winners on The Voice has ever done a single fucking thing commercially. Javier Colon, the victor of the first season, made it to #17 with his 2011 single “Stitch By Stitch,” and it’s basically been crickets ever since.

Over the years, some people have used The Voice to launch themselves to bigger things. Morgan Wallen, a former Voice contestant, will eventually appear in this column. Other ex-contestants, like Melanie Martinez and Foushée, have found different levels of pop success. In all of those cases, though, The Voice is just a career footnote, a funny piece of backstory. The show wasn’t really essential to any of them, especially since none of them actually won.

Instead, the real winners of The Voice were the already-famous coaches, who used the show to burnish their images and launch new career narratives. Blake Shelton, for instance, became the most random Sexiest Man Alive in People history, and he also met his second wife, former Number Ones artist Gwen Stefani, when she became a coach. Adam Levine captured his own Sexiest Man Alive crown, and he also reinvented himself as a pop star. Along the way, he remade Maroon 5 as the vehicle for his pop stardom, and he dragged fellow coach Christina Aguilera back to #1 for one last time.

“Moves Like Jagger” didn’t start out as a Maroon 5 song. Instead, the track began with Benny Blanco and Shellback, two producers who have been in this column a bunch of times, and with Ammar Malik, a Virginia-born songwriter who was Blanco’s childhood friend. Before “Moves Like Jagger,” Blanco and Shellback scored most of their big hits alongside their more-established mentor figures — Shellback with Max Martin, Benny Blanco with onetime Max Martin protege Dr. Luke. In the aforementioned Variety interview, Adam Levine said, “It was written for a girl: ‘He got them moves like Jagger.’ And I was the asshole with the audacity to say, ‘What if I had the moves?’ When everyone looked at me like I was a fucking maniac, I knew I was onto something.”

“Moves Like Jagger” doesn’t really have anything to do with Mick Jagger, though its grating whistle-riff has some vague melodic similarity to the wordless gasp-howl thing that Jagger moans on “Miss You,” the Rolling Stones’ last Hot 100 chart-topper. Instead, the songwriters took advantage of something that was in the air. At some point in the late ’00s or early ’10s, a bunch of songwriters noticed that Mick Jagger’s name rhymes with “swagger,” which led to many Jagger namechecks on songs that sounded absolutely nothing like the Stones, including Kesha’s “Tik Tok,” another Benny Blanco production. “Moves Like Jagger” has the decency to not repeat the swagger/Jagger rhyme, though maybe it’s implied.

Adam Levine shares “Moves Like Jagger” songwriting credit with Benny Blanco, Shellback, Ammar Malik, and no other members of Maroon 5. As far as I can tell, none of the other Maroon 5 guys even played on “Moves Like Jagger”; it’s a Maroon 5 song the same way that “Call Me” is a Blondie song. On the track, Adam Levine attempts to seduce someone by claiming that he’s got the moves like Jagger. His moves are so hypnotic, he claims, that he doesn’t even have to run any game: “I don’t need to try to control you/ Look into my eyes and I’ll own you.” That’s good, since some of his pickup lines are outright atrocious. Consider: “Take me by the tongue and I’ll show you.” That’s on the chorus. That’s how he begins the chorus.

“Moves Like Jagger” is full-on dance-pop, and you can practically hear the individual Logic stems being dragged together. There’s some chicken-scratch funk guitar in there, but it blurs right into ravey synths and throbbing electro-bass. Despite its four-on-the-floor stomp, the track never even approaches house music. If anything, it works as wan, processed pseudo-disco. The song’s dominant element is an unbelievably obnoxious whistle-riff that keeps coming back, again and again. I hate it so much. For whatever reason, bands could only score top-10 hits in 2011 when they made doofy pop songs with egregious whistle-bits. The same week that “Moves Like Jagger” hit #1, Foster The People reached a #3 peak with their jaunty school-shooter number “Pumped Up Kicks,” which has some prominent whistling of its own. (It’s a 6. The whistling isn’t quite as bad on that one.)

I don’t think much of Adam Levine’s vocals, either. Levine can hit notes, and he probably fits into the Daryl Hall lineage of white soul singers who use nasal squeaks to convey confidence. But I don’t hear a whole lot of personality in Levine’s pinched delivery. I guess he’s convincingly horny, which is something, but it doesn’t move me. Christina Aguilera doesn’t show up on the track until the bridge. At least on paper, she’s there to flirt back with Levine: “You wanna know how to make me smile?/ Take control, own me just for the night.” If Levine and Christina have any on-record chemistry, it never gets beyond the co-worker level. Still, Christina’s part of the song is my favorite, if only because it’s a relief to hear someone show up and wail with abandon. Just for a moment, the song unclenches.

Jonas Åkerlund directed the “Moves Like Jagger” video, and it mostly revolves around a series of auditions for Mick Jagger impersonators. Jagger himself only shows up as a ghost. The clip opens with a young Jagger saying that he can’t imagine singing for the Rolling Stones when he’s older, and those old quotes always work in a vaguely ironic way. (Similarly, Adam Levine used to say that he couldn’t imagine himself singing for Maroon 5 in middle age, but he’s 44 now — same age as me — and he’s still out there.) It’s almost painful to see the Jagger impersonators trying to summon a sense of wild abandon while dancing to a song as computerized and climate-controlled as “Moves Like Jagger.” It doesn’t say too much for the forward momentum of pop music in 2011.

There’s a whole lot of Adam Levine in the “Moves Like Jagger” video. He dances, but he doesn’t dance like Mick Jagger. Nobody really dances like Mick Jagger. That’s not really something that anyone can do. Jagger doesn’t have dizzying dance moves like Michael Jackson or someone. Instead, he gets over on pure peacocking confidence, and you can’t fake that. Levine doesn’t really try. Instead, Levine spends a whole lot of the video shirtless. I don’t know when Levine got all tatted-up, but if he did that to better play the rock-star role, it didn’t really work. In this clip, the effect is less “Henry Rollins,” more “Sears clerk getting bored and drawing on a mannequin.”

“Moves Like Jagger” wasn’t on Hands All Over when Maroon 5 released the album in 2010. Instead, the single was added to the LP later. When “Moves Like Jagger” came out in June 2011, the song was promoted almost as an extension of The Voice. Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera debuted the track on The Voice, and it went straight into in the top 10. Beyond the association with The Voice, I don’t really understand why “Moves Like Jagger” was so popular. It’s thin and brittle and irritating, and its catchiest parts are less fun than they are oppressive. But the song was, and is, legitimately huge. It’s not just a case of radio seizing upon a relatively inoffensive track and hammering it into the ground. The single sold a kajillion downloads, and it’s got well over a billion streams. In 2019, Maroon 5 used the track as the big finale of their instantly-forgotten Super Bowl Halftime Show. In 2021, “Moves Like Jagger” went diamond.

When “Moves Like Jagger” reached #1, it essentially reinvented Maroon 5. Hands All Over went platinum after “Moves Like Jagger” was added to the album. The song also marked a bit of a comeback for Christina Aguilera, who hadn’t sung on a #1 hit since the all-star “Lady Marmalade” cover eleven years earlier. Christina hadn’t even been in the top 10 since 2008, when her electro-pop track “Keeps Gettin’ Better” peaked at #7. (It’s a 7.)

Christina Aguilera left The Voice after a few seasons, and she returned intermittently for a while. After “Moves Like Jagger,” Christina scored a couple more hit collaborations. In 2013, she made it to #8 as a guest on the Pitbull track “Feel This Moment.” That same year, she reached #4 as a guest on A Great Big World’s ballad “Say Something.” (“Feel This Moment” is a 2, and “Say Something” is a 5.) Christina hasn’t been on the Hot 100 at all since then, but it’s nice that she got another pop moment. She’s firmly in the Vegas-residency stage of her career now, and she seems to be doing just fine. I guess she just had a song on the soundtrack of the new Paw Partrol movie.

Adam Levine later said that he considered “Moves Like Jagger” to be a real risk. In that Variety interview, Levine said, “Working with outside writers wasn’t something I wanted to do… I could have even trusted the band more, but I didn’t. Still, maybe extending myself to outside writers was a positive step for all of us as a band.” Levine might’ve also been nervous about paying direct tribute to Mick Jagger, who barely acknowledged the track. Jagger never sang “Moves Like Jagger.” He didn’t make a cameo in the video. In 2012, Jagger told the BBC, “They asked me to come and play with them, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.” I can’t source the quote, but Songfacts claims that Jagger also once said, “What am I going to say? I’m not going to be mean about it, am I? It’s very catchy pop, isn’t it?” I don’t know. Is it?

Mick Jagger basically pretended that “Moves Like Jagger” didn’t exist, and I can’t blame him. For Adam Levine, though, the song was a rebirth. Around the same time that he recorded “Moves Like Jagger,” Adam Levine guested on the Gym Class Heroes’ “Stereo Hearts,” another song that counted Benny Blanco and Amaar Malik among its songwriters. The same week that “Moves Like Jagger” reached #1, “Stereo Hearts” cracked the top 10. Just like “Moves Like Jagger,” “Stereo Hearts” sucks butts. (“Stereo Hearts” eventually peaked at #4. It’s a 3.)

Once “Moves Like Jagger” hit, Maroon 5 went right back into the lab and tried to make more songs like it. Not everyone in the band was on board. In 2012, keyboardist Jesse Carmichael, who’d been in the group since their Kara’s Flowers days, announced that he was taking a break so that he could “pursue more full time studies in music and the healing arts.” (Carmichael returned a few years later.) In their effort to make full-on pop music that did not sound like the work of an actual band, Maroon 5 were extremely successful. We’ll see these not-rock stars in this column again.

GRADE: 3/10

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

BONUS BEATS: Former Number Ones artists Bananarama released a full-on synthpop cover of “Moves Like Jagger” in 2012, and I like their version better than the original. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2014 film Muppets Most Wanted where Scooter and some penguins sing a little bit of “Moves Like Jagger”:

(Kermit The Frog’s highest-charting single, 1979’s “Rainbow Connection,” peaked at #25. That’s not the real Kermit in the video, though. It’s Constantine, an evil Russian Kermit lookalike who tries to take his place. “My Heart Will Go On,” the song that Miss Piggy sings in that video, has already been in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Young Devyn and Fivio Foreign rapping over a “Moves Like Jagger” sample on the 2022 Brooklyn drill track “Outside”:

(Fivio Foreign’s highest-charting single as lead artist, the 2021 Polo G/Lil Tjay collab “Headshot,” peaked at #42. Fivio reached #11 as an uncredited guest on Kanye West’s 2021 track “Off The Grid.”)

THE 10S: Rihanna’s Avril-sampling alcohol anthem “Cheers (Drink To That)” peaked at #7 behind “Moves Like Jagger.” Don’t let the bastards tell you that it’s not a 10.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Take me by the tongue and I’ll show you how to buy it here.

more from The Number Ones